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The Danger of a Single Story: a Revist

Updated: Oct 8, 2018

What still strikes me about Chimamanda Ngozi’s TED talk in 2014 (of the same title as this blog) is just how dangerously dominant a single narrative can be about any news story (or Netflix episode), especially a religious one.

Take paedophilic Catholic priests in the news (last month's news story about 300 of them who’d abused more than 1000 children) and on Netflix (‘The Keepers’) and oppression of Muslim women, symbolised by the debate about the burka and honour/shame killings.

Without being a Muslim and knowing Muslim women or being a part of a Catholic community, there’s a considerable danger of making generalisations leading to misconceptions about all Muslim women and all Catholic priests.

Generalisations such as:

All Catholic priests are suspicious and are liable to have sex with young people under the age of consent (see Wiki’s Catholic Church Sex Abuse Cases).

All Muslim women are oppressed and abused by their husbands or fathers(see Wiki’s ‘Islam and Domestic Violence’).

The fact these phenomena have their own Wiki pages and all sensationalism generated by the news; it's clear these generalisations can seem reasonable and lead to widespread stereotypes, leading to a blame culture of xenophobes and bigots.

The other danger is it can taint your own outlook. For instance, my partner didn’t want to go to church with my son and me recently, in part, because of the recent Catholic priest news story in the US. The thought of being in a religious environment (although we don’t go to a Catholic church) made her feel uncomfortable.*

I spoke with a married Muslim family man at a local mosque about honour killings, and he often said the domestic abuse is more a reflection of the culture where it takes place than of Islam.

In the Arabic speaking world, historically we can assume as Westerners that there’s been less progress towards gender equality or that it’s harsher in social and cultural freedoms that are rooted in Islam, e.g. the prohibition of drinking alcohol and wearing a hijab.

In both instances, I think it’s much more likely to be a blend of both culture and religion; and when the belief find roots in a particular culture, it’s a recipe for abuse of power. The patriarch in Arabic and Catholic communities with new traditional notions of religious authority in both societies can promote corruption and the turning of a blind eye.

What I find really revealing about Islam, contrary to popular opinion, is how socially progressive its message was, particularly for women, when it was revealed to Muhammad in the seventh century BC.

The Qur’an’s teachings elevated the position of women who at the time throughout the Arabic speaking world and Europe were oppressed and viewed as inferior to men in society.

For instance, the Qur’an (Surah An-Nisa 34) teaches that women have the right to invest in, inherit and own their own property. Women weren’t given this right in Europe until the 19th Century. Women could also choose their husbands, refuse marriage, get divorced if they wanted to and keep their maiden names after marriage (Surah Al-Ahzab 33). Yet people, formerly including millennials like me, think that Islam always has since it’s conception, been behind social and political progress.

“The single story creates a stereotype and the problem with a stereotype is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete, they make one story become the only story.”

Yes, you could argue that Islam is outdated in the 21st Century, that it needs to catch-up. Not everywhere, according to my Muslim friend, in Canada Islam adapts. He spoke of Mosques with mixed congregations and female imams. Just because women wear hijabs doesn’t mean they’re oppressed. That’s just playing to western media stereotypes of the Muslim women who are “forced” to wear the hijab, to please their husbands.

Heard of Ibtihaj’s book entitled ‘Proud?’ You may have heard of her, she’s first Muslim American woman to wear a hijab while competing for the United States in the Olympics. Far from feeling oppressed, despite as you noted how it’s projected otherwise, her fame has led to a Barbie being made of her in her honour. She said ‘Ibtihaj Muhammad said she was “proud” to have inspired a hijab-wearing Barbie doll in her likeness.’

To sum it up, in the words of, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

“The single story creates a stereotype and the problem with a stereotype is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete, they make one story become the only story”0

*She was raised as a Catholic community, going to Mass etc.

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